The EU Just Passed The “Meme Ban.” Here’s Everything You Need To Know

The European Union (EU) just signed off on a bunch of controversial new copyright laws that could massively change your online experience.

It’s been described as everything from a “dark day for internet freedom” to “one of the most contentious decisions in the European Union’s history.” So, what’s all the controversy about? And – the real question on everyone’s mind – does this actually mean the EU is banning memes?

The new European Union directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market looked to update laws on copyright for the digital age. After several revisions of the current legislation, members of the EU parliament backed the directive in a 348 to 274 vote. The next coming will see whether member states will approve the decision in the Council of the EU. If they approve it, all EU countries will have to implement the law within 2 years.

It has been argued that big platforms, such as Google and YouTube, make colossal profits by merely guiding users to content, but fail to fairly give back to the creators of the content, such as artists, “YouTubers”, and journalists. To address this, the EU claims the laws will make a “fairer and sustainable marketplace for creators, the creative industries, and the press.”

Article 11/15 & Article 13/17

The most divisive element of the new law – formerly known as Article 13, but now called Article 17 in the amended version – will hold online platforms responsible for material posted without copyright permission. It means online platforms and publishers will be legally obliged to filter or remove users’ content that breaks copyright laws. In theory, it hopes to ensure the original creator receives payment for the use of their content.

Another contentious point is Article 11 – now Article 15 – which will require search engines and social media platforms to hold licenses for linking to publishers. This will effectively mean content creators can charge platforms, like Google, if they show small snippets of their content, such as an article summary on Google News.

What’s The Problem?

While the changes are intended to take power away from all-dominating online platforms and give it back to artists, it’s feared that it will actually harm independent content creators and smaller digital platforms, as well as dampen the diversity of online media.

Critics of the new directive argue that only the very biggest companies will be able to afford the technology and resources to comply with the rules. Smaller publishers and platforms will struggle to fulfill the responsibilities to remove content. Even relatively well-established companies, such as Reddit, claim the law will “seriously impact” their ability to compete with the other platforms.

Some publishers will be immune from the laws, most notably Wikipedia and GitHub; however, even these companies have expressed concerns over the reforms due to the effect it will have on the wider internet ecosystem.

It isn’t just publishers who might be stung. Artists and content creators will find it difficult to practically benefit from the protections and, instead, could find themselves being swept up by the law’s tight restrictions.

“Misplaced confidence in filtering technologies to make nuanced distinctions between copyright violations and legitimate uses of protected material would escalate the risk of error and censorship. Who would bear the brunt of this practice? Typically it would be creators and artists, who lack the resources to litigate such claims,” David Kaye, United Nations human rights expert on freedom of expression, said in a statement.

“In the long run, this would imperil the future of information diversity and media pluralism in Europe, since only the biggest players will be able to afford these technologies,” he added.

Some of Europe’s leading academic research centers for intellectual property have also been highly critical of the articles. CREATe, the UK Copyright and Creative Economy Centre at the University of Glasgow, argues that the two provisions “do not serve the public interest.”

Article 11, they argue, will “deter communication of news, obstruct online licensing, and will negatively affect authors.” Article 13 will also “hinder digital innovation and users’ participation.”

There are also many types of online media that fall into a grey area when it comes to original content and copyright. For example, it’s uncertain where streamers, who post videos of themselves playing video games, will fit into this.

Yeah, Anyway, What About The Memes?

As you might have heard, the law was dubbed the “meme ban” due to concerns it could effectively outlaw the sharing of copyrighted images, which would include stills from films, TV shows, music videos, etc.

An updated version of the law allows the use of some copyrighted materials “for purposes of quotation, criticism, review, caricature, parody, and pastiche.” In theory, this means memes are safe. However, once again, it’s not totally clear how the legislation will be implemented. If it’s carried out by automated filtering technologies, which seems likely, then memes that repurpose copyrighted material could be swept up in the dragnet.


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